There is almost always an inherent disconnect between watch enthusiasts and your average layman. Typically, if an enthusiast discusses the differences between an in-house movement versus an ETA with their non-enthusiast friends, it goes in one ear and out the other; however, some brands have become so synonymous with luxury and opulence that even your least watch-inclined peers would likely be impressed if they caught you wearing one, and no brand has this recognition factor more so than Rolex.
When it comes to the luxury watch industry, it is relatively easy to impress your peers with your vast knowledge of all things horology-related, but there are likely some brand facts that even you don’t know yet. Read on to learn some little-known facts about the world’s most iconic watch producer.
1. The term “Rolex” has no roots…in anything.
Generally, in the world of horology, a brand’s name has its roots in something of historical significance. Patek Philippe, for instance, refers to the names of the brand’s founders, while the name Tudor comes from the Tudor dynasty. When it comes to Rolex, though, its founder Hans Wilsdorf made the name up. Allegedly, Hans tried various combinations of letters, and one day, the name Rolex just came to him. Wilsdorf later came out and said that he was looking for an easy-to-pronounce word that would be eye-catching on a watch face.
2. Rolex may be Swiss now, but it hasn’t always been that way
Wilsdorf and his English brother-in-law got their start in the watch-making industry by inserting Swiss movements into English cases. Eventually, the brothers decided to try their hands at watchmaking and opened their watch shop in London, where they proceeded to make their own watches for over a decade. Then, in part due to England’s 33% import tax and in part due to Switzerland’s reputation for high-quality timepieces, the company moved to the world capital of horology.
3. Rolex has a sister company, and it’s impressive in its own right
Unlike Rolex, Tudor actually was originally made in Switzerland by Swiss watchmaking company “Veuve de Philippe Hüther,” which was eventually bought by Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex. Wilsdorf’s goal with Tudor was to provide people with an affordable alternative to his luxury Rolex watches. Nowadays, although not as well known as Rolex, Tudor also offers quality and craftsmanship that are difficult to match at any price point.
4. Rolex, the brand behind infamous divers like the Submariner, was the first to make a waterproof watch
After the quartz crisis, almost all watches, from quartz to mechanical, were expected to be waterproof. Even dress watches commonly sport 50 meters of water resistance. However, prior to Rolex, waterproofing a watch was unheard of, and up until 1926, one of the leading causes of damage to watches was dust and humidity gathering beneath the dial. At the time, Rolex was so confident in their waterproof watches that their stores would display them in the front window inside water-filled tanks.
5. Rolex’s ardent support of the Allied Forces helped popularize the brand
During World War II, many members of Britain’s Royal Air Force purchased Rolex watches due to Rolex’s superior quality and functionality over their standard-issue British military watches. As the Nazis captured members of the allied forces, they often stole their prisoners’ timepieces. When news of this reached Wilsdorf, he guaranteed all members of the Allied Forces that he would replace any stolen Rolex watches, and moreover, he would take the soldiers at their word. This made the watch a hit amongst all the soldiers of the Allied Forces, even after the war was over, thereby cementing the watch into the public’s consciousness.
6. Every Rolex is handmade
Every year, approximately one million Rolex watches are produced, and each are handmade. It’s difficult to believe that, in an automated world, these COSC certified chronometers are assembled entirely by hand, but, then again, a Rolex is hardly just a timepiece; it’s a work of art. Perhaps more incredible, the entirety of the millions of Rolex watches produced each year are produced by just over 4,000 watchmakers.
7. But even then, more counterfeit Rolex watches are sold than their legitimate counterparts
The amount of tedious labor that goes into producing a Rolex is what makes them so valuable, and their price reflects that; however, some amateur watch enthusiasts want the brand without the cost, so it should come as no surprise that the fake Rolex market is booming. Approximately seven million counterfeit Rolex watches are sold per year, meaning there are more fake Rolex watches out there than real Rolex watches.
8. The most expensive Rolex sold for more than 17 million
In October 2017, an anonymous bidder bought Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona for 17.7 million dollars, which was the most ever spent on a watch at the time. The record for the most expensive collector’s watch was later beaten by a Patek Phillipe that sold for 31.1 million dollars.
9. Rolex might be a charity…or just avoiding taxes
In 1944, Wilsdorf founded a charity known simply as the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. As a private charity, it is not required to pay taxes under Swiss law, nor is it required to disclose its charitable works, so there is no way of ascertaining what the foundation does. Later on, Wilsdorf transferred all his shares of Rolex to the foundation, meaning Rolex pays nothing in Swiss taxes.
10. Rolex is built differently than the majority of its competitors, all the way down to the band material
These days, stainless steel is the industry standard for watch bands, but where most companies opt to use a common 316L grade steel, Rolex exclusively uses a more premium 904L grade steel, which contains more nickel and chromium and resists the corrosive effects of seawater significantly better than 316L grade steel.
Everything about Rolex, from the dazzling sunburst dial of the Submariner to the handcrafted high-caliber in-house movement ticking away inside the Daytona, highlights the impressive legacy behind the brand. To learn more about other luxury brands, visit Watch Investor.